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Millions of dollars will be spent in this presidential election by super-PAC-supporting candidates. These outside groups are not supposed to coordinate with the campaigns, but increasingly, that line is getting fuzzy. NPR's Peter Overby reports on a political operative who got caught crossing that line. Tomorrow, he'll be sentenced in federal court and faces up to a decade in prison.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: It's never happened before. No political operative has ever been charged with illegal coordination. That is coordination between a candidate and an outside group on strategies or messaging. The operative here is Tyler Harber. In 2012, he was hired by a first-time Republican candidate named Chris Perkins running against longtime Democratic congressman Gerry Connolly in Northern Virginia. Harber managed the campaign, and he controlled a super PAC to boost Perkins. He also took a big commission on ads the super PAC ran promoting the candidate. A local Republican official raised questions about Harber's activities. The Justice Department got involved. Harber pleaded guilty last winter. Campaign finance lawyer Robert Kelner has been closely watching the case.
ROBERT KELNER: The Department of Justice is not, I don't think, actively looking for these cases, but when they are put on the department's doorstep, we now know they're very willing to pursue them.
OVERBY: What makes this news is the rising power of super PACs, supposedly independent entities that are not bound by the usual contribution limits. This year, virtually every presidential candidate has at least one super PAC run by friends and financed by billionaires. Kelner and many other campaign finance lawyers say the Harber case could be DOJ's shot across the bow of the 2016 candidates. But other lawyers are more dismissive. They say Harber is such an outlier that his case may not have much impact. Here's conservative lawyer Dan Backer.
DAN BACKER: For most political actors in this situation, they likely would've talked to a lawyer first.
OVERBY: On the other side is Fred Wertheimer, a longtime leader of efforts to restrain political money.
FRED WERTHEIMER: You know, some of those campaign finance lawyers just may be wishing this will go away.
OVERBY: He points to the prominence of super PAC money in the race for the White House.
WERTHEIMER: We just cannot have the president of the United States chosen on a flood of illegal campaign money.
OVERBY: Either way, Kelner says the door is open for more coordination cases.
KELNER: There are lots of people involved in campaigns who end up with a grudge, and each and every one of those people is a potential whistleblower who can run to the Department of Justice.
OVERBY: Harber will be sentenced by federal district judge Liam O'Grady in Alexandria, Va. He pleaded to illegal coordination plus lying to the FBI. Together, they could bring 10 years in prison. Prosecutors say Harber should serve nearly four years. Defense attorneys say about one-and-a-half years is enough to warn consultants that the anti-coordination law has new teeth. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.